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The Fiscal Myth That’s Killing The Economy, In 7 Steps

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

RichardEskowA new economic working paper reinforces an important reality: We need more government spending to repair the economy for millions of working Americans. Unfortunately, our political debate is being held back by an economic myth – one that has yet to be challenged in political debate, despite an ever-growing body of evidence against it.

The paper, by L. John Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute, is called “Why is recovery taking so long – and who’s to blame?

The myth is called “austerity,” and it can be roughly defined as “the persistent but false belief that government spending cuts are always a good idea.”

Here are seven things about austerity worth knowing:

1. Our current recovery is too slow, and isn’t reaching everybody it should.

As Bivens points out, employment took longer to reach its pre-recession levels this time around than it did in the previous three recovery periods. Perhaps even more significantly, the rate of job creation remained slower after the recession officially ended.

What’s more, the jobs created after the 2009 crisis were weighted heavily toward lower-income professions. Labor force participation for people of working age remains low, even though it has improved somewhat.

And, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research recently reported, the percentage of people who are involuntarily working part-time rather than full-time is 25 percent higher now than it was before the recession.

As CEPR’s Nick Buffie notes, “Over 6 million people are working part-time involuntarily, and on average they work 23 hours per week. Because full-time workers are typically employed 42–43 hours per week, this is effectively a wage cut of almost 50 percent for the affected workers.”

2. The weak recovery affects a lot of full-time workers.

It is not just the unemployed and underemployed who are affected by the weak recovery. Many full-time workers are earning less than they would be if the economy had rebounded at a faster pace, creating more and better jobs than it has.

The American middle class needs a raise. But millions of people won’t get their raises until the economy is stronger and the demand for workers goes up. And demand will remain low until there are more jobs to fill.

3. We know what to do about it.

Government has two tools at its disposal in situations like this: monetary policy and fiscal policy. Monetary policy was promptly deployed after the latest crisis, both to bail out Wall Street and to improve the overall economy. The Federal Reserve should have been more attentive to the Main Street economy, using some of the creativity it used to rescue the financial sector, but it did cut interest rates and that helped.

Unfortunately, fiscal policy, in the form of job-creating government spending initiatives, was used only sparingly at the federal level. Over the past seven years there have been spending cuts at the federal, state and local levels. That’s the opposite of what’s needed, especially in an economy like this one.

As Bivens points out, it’s necessary to increase demand under conditions like those we see today. A simplistic overview of the process: The government creates jobs, the people who get those jobs spend more, the economy’s “pump” is primed and growth follows.

We aren’t talking about radical, far-left ideas here. This approach has been mainstream economic thinking for many decades, and was successfully applied under Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

4. We relied on the myth of austerity instead.

But recent years have seen the rise of different ideas – ideas that were tended and nurtured by right-wing institutions like the Peterson Foundation, and by conservative economic thinkers too numerous to mention. “Austerity economics” – the belief that governments can cut their way to growth – became conventional thinking in the halls of academe and the halls of power. It is obsessed with deficit spending, to the exclusion of other concerns that are often more pressing.

Austerity-driven cuts have hurt the U.S. economy. Austerity’s done even more damage in Europe. When the global financial crisis of 2008 struck, multilateral decision-makers (including the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or IMF) imposed a harsh austerity regimen on Greece and other struggling European economies. The result, as we now know, was disastrous.

To its credit, the IMF conducted an internal review of its actions during this period. The report found that IMF officials ignored a number of warning signs and had a “strongly optimistic bias” about the effects of austerity. The report also agreed with an earlier investigation that found “a high degree of groupthink, intellectual capture … and incomplete analytical approaches.”

That’s pretty much what happened here, too.

The crisis of 2008, and the events that followed, disproved austerity economics and other hallmarks of conservative economic thought. But it remains popular in powerful circles – perhaps because, as Upton Sinclair said (in the gendered language of his time): “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

5. It’s mostly a Republican problem …

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Republicans remain steadfast in their opposition to government spending – even for government jobs like teaching, firefighting, and emergency management.

As Bivens explains:

“We are enduring one of the slowest economic recoveries in recent history, and the pace can be entirely explained by the fiscal austerity, particularly with regard to spending, imposed by Republican policymakers, members of Congress primarily but also legislators and governors at the state level.”

The Republican Congress can even take much of the blame for state-level spending cuts, since transfers from the federal government account for more than 20 percent of state and local spending.

Bad economies aren’t an act of God. They are a result of human action – or inaction.

6. … but a lot of Democrats have bought into the myth, too.

A number of top Democrats echoed the rhetoric of austerity, too. That led to weaker political support for the spending we needed, and probably clouded the judgment of Democratic leaders when it came time to make the case for needed spending increases.

President Obama spent far too much time fighting for a “grand bargain” on spending with congressional Republicans that was rooted in austerity thinking, and too little time challenging that thinking. He also had the habit, especially in his first term, of echoing the false economic tropes of the austerity crowd by saying things like “just like every family in America … the Federal government has to live within its means …”

National budgets don’t work like family budgets at all – that is, unless the family in question issues its own sovereign currency.

There are strong hints of austerity-oriented thinking in Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric, too. That puts her at odds with enthusiastic backer Paul Krugman, who wielded a poison pen on her behalf during the Democratic primaries but is currently making the case for borrowing and spending.

Austerity thinking was highlighted at last month’s Democratic National Convention when Gene Sperling, a senior economic advisor to former presidents Clinton and Obama, was featured in a humor-oriented anti-Trump video produced by “Funny or Die.” Whether or not hilarity ensues must remain a matter of personal opinion, but the video clearly relies on austerity economics – specifically, an exaggerated fear of deficits – to scare viewers.

There has never been a better time for the federal government to borrow money and invest in the economy. It can obtain very low interest rates, the economy would respond very well to job creation, and we urgently need to spend money on repairing and expanding our national infrastructure. (The American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020.)

7. We need a national debate about austerity economics.

Hillary Clinton has proposed modest levels of infrastructure investment and other government spending – modest, but better than nothing. President Obama put forward similar spending proposals. But these proposals suffer from a fatal flaw that renders them useless in today’s climate: They’re too large to get past the Republicans in Congress and too small to change the political debate.

Democrats have not directly challenged Republicans on government’s proper role in the economy. Too often, they have tried to co-opt the rhetoric (and sometimes the policies) of austerity instead.

Republicans, on the other hand, offer a clearly articulated and internally coherent (if utterly fallacious) economic perspective. Democrats can also offer a coherent perspective, too – one with the added advantage of having been proven by experience. That perspective can make life better for millions of people.

This is the economic debate this country needs. But we won’t get it until someone challenges austerity economics and the conservative philosophy behind it – directly, unambiguously and fearlessly.

This article originally appeared at Ourfuture.org on August 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Richard Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and the host of The Zero Hour, a weekly program of news, interviews, and commentary on We Act Radio The Zero Hour is syndicated nationally and is available as a podcast on iTunes. Richard has been a consultant, public policy advisor, and health executive in health financing and social insurance. He was cited as one of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists” in “The Rough Guide to the Future,” which highlighted his long-range forecasts on health care, evolution, technology, and economic equality. Richard’s writing has been published in print and online. He has also been anthologized three times in book form for “Best Buddhist Writing of the Year.”

How “Right to Work Shirk” Laws Kill Jobs – and Hurt All of Us

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Michigan’s recent battle makes this a good time to explain the union movement’s important role in our economy’s overall health. We’re about to explain why today’s war on unions is bad for all of us, no matter what we do for a living, and we’ll do it in four steps.

But first a word about language: “Right to work” is a misnomer for laws which let employees enjoy the benefits of union membership – at least for a little while, until they’re stripped away – without joining or contributing.

So we’ll call them “right to shirk” laws instead. And we’ll call the people who back these laws Shirkers.

And while we’re at it, let’s stop calling the states that have adopted this legislation “right to work.” They don’t give people any new rights. They take rights away, by making it illegal for employees to organize and negotiate together. They even take away employers‘ rights – to sign a certain kind of contract.

So let’s give the other states a name instead: In a nod to the Jim Crow origin of these laws, let’s call the ones which don’t have these laws “free states.”

Free Ride

Right to Shirk laws allow freeloaders to profit from the efforts of others – without contributing to the effort, and in a way that harms the common good. The billionaires and corporations behind these laws wouldn’t deliberately do anything like that, would they? Why, that would be like letting people make billions from the works of government – things like roads, the Internet and publicly-educated customers – without paying their fair share of taxes.

Oh, wait.

Right to Shirk laws are job-killers. Here are four steps to understanding why:

1. Think nationally, not just locally.

Advocates say these laws create jobs. They don’t. Their “evidence” is based on studies which show modest job growth in Right to Shirk states when compared to free states.  But all that proves is that places that are politically hostile to organized labor also offer other types of corporate favoritism.

It also suggests that Right to Shirk states can steal jobs from free states — as long as the jobs last, anyway.

The Shirker movement was started in the late 1940s by a handful of Southern politicians who were in the palm of big textile mills. They were able to draw textile jobs away from free Northern cities like my hometown of Utica, NY – until those jobs left this country altogether.  That’s not “creating” jobs — that’s killing good jobs and replacing them with ones that don’t pay enough.

The concept of “solidarity” has been tarred with McCarthyite smears. But “solidarity” is just another way of saying “We’re all in this together.”  The Right to Shirk crowd wants to stop that kind of thinking so it can pit state against state and employee against employee, shredding our social fabric for personal gain.

It’s no accident that the Shirker movement was started by the reactionary white politicians of the Jim Crow South. Back then they were still pining for the days when they could offer some folks the “right to work” … for nothing.

2. We’re fighting over a shrinking pie instead of making the pie bigger.

Things are bad. We need millions of jobs – and the jobs we do have don’t pay enough.

The graphic which Business Insider likes to call “the scariest chart ever” shows how far we are from creating the number of jobs needed to make this country’s economy grow and thrive again.  Job growth like that we’ve seen recently is always welcome, but it’s not nearly enough to get us out of this ditch. How do we get moving again?

To answer that question we need to know what’s worked in the past.

3. The real “job creators” are people with jobs – good jobs.

How did this nation finally escape the after-effects of the Great Depression and begin its greatest decades of economic growth? Government spending  – on roads, bridges, schools, and other vitally needed services – played a key part.

Unions were a crucial part of this process, too. By fighting for higher wages and better benefits, unions ensure that working people have the means to purchase consumer items, housing, and other goods and services.  Companies have to hire more people to keep up with demand – and the good jobs keep coming.

That’s why the Republican Party platform of 1956 boasted that “unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 millions” during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term. Back then Republicans understood that a growing middle class was good for the entire economy.  That party platform also said that “America does not prosper unless all Americans prosper.” Their rule: No shirkers.

But then in those days our economy wasn’t dominated by Wall Street megabanks – institutions that don’t build or sell anything. And politicians weren’t completely in bankers’ pockets back then, because the public wouldn’t have tolerated it.

We shouldn’t tolerate it now.

4. When you kill unions, that reduces consumer income – which kills jobs.

The Shirker assault on unions has taken its toll. Only 25 states remain free to unionize, and union membership has fallen dramatically:

 

Their logic would suggest that the plunge in union membership we’ve seen since 1960 must have led to a rise in good jobs.  Did it? Let’s take a look at manufacturing:

That’s my freehand drawing (and therefore not exact) of the trend line in union membership, superimposed by the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States.  Manufacturing jobs kept on increasing for more than twenty years, even as union membership increased. These jobs experienced periods of decline and stagnation as union membership fell, even before the devastating impact of NAFTA.

Consumer demand is vital to growth. That demand is tied to consumers’ income, and to their belief that life in the future will be as good or better than it is today.  Those are the two things we need to reinforce, and unions are crucial to that effort.

We need to get our economy growing again. Until then most Americans, unionized or not, will continue to struggle with stagnating wages and an ongoing economic drag that can feel a lot like a recession.  As Paul Krugman likes to say (he said it in our radio interview), This isn’t rocket science. We know how to do this.

Destroying unions is just another way for the Shirkers to make sure that we never do.

This post was originally posted on Our Future on December 13, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Richard Eskow is a well-known blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, an experienced consultant, and a former musician.  He has experience in health insurance and economics, occupational health, benefits, risk management, finance, and information technology.  He has a somewhat unique perspective on the current financial crisis, since he worked for AIG for a number of years (although not in its infamous Financial Products division). Richard has consulting experience in the US and over 20 countries. Past clients include USAID, the World Bank, the State Department, the Harvard School of International Public Health, the Government of Hungary, as well as corporations and investors. He has experience in financial and data analysis, systems design, operations, and management.

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